In time for Banned Books Week, Steve Duin of The Oregonian talks about the problems with banning books and graphic novels and how, even in a day and age in which freedom of speech is celebrated, schools, libraries, and bookstores are still frontline defenders of the right to read.
Take for instance a recent case in Duin’s home state, Oregon, where a local Ashland bookstore Shakespeare Books & Antiques found themselves the target of a bitter boycott after displaying the controversial 1937 book Little Black Sambo as part of their banned books section. Alongside other works repeatedly challenged for their depictions of racially sensitive topics, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Color Purple, the display was intended to make these titles available to read “during these critical times.” Included on a plaque next to the display reads Scott Parker-Anderson’s famous quote:
The truth about the past can make people feel uncomfortable, but it does not change the truth… REMEMBER, those that forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
Despite the fact that the display had been put up for four years, employees at the Oregon Shakespeare Society called the display “hurtful,” and proceeded to boycott the store. The result: an announcement that the store would be closed due to the financial hardship caused by the boycott. As the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote in a statement regarding the case, “In pressuring the bookstore to censor the display by removing a book OSF considers offensive, it undermines a fundamental free speech principle — that the response to noxious ideas is more speech, not enforced silence.” CBLDF joined NCAC in signing the letter.
For Duin, this is a prime example of the harm of banning books. Moreover, he points out that it isn’t just classic literature that is taking the brunt of the blows from would-be censors. “In our digital age, libraries, bookstores, and comic shops are still heated interchanges in disputes over the power of words and images,” writes Duin, citing another case: the controversy surrounding the first graphic novel to make the Caldecott Medal shortlist, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer. “It’s a memorable graphic novel, a Caldecott Honor award winner,” writes Duin. “And it’s one more expressive reason why the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, set for the end of September, is still an annual event.”
Since its initial publication in 2014, Julian and Mariko Tamaki’s graphic novel has been met with critical acclaim and accolades. Celebrated for its touching coming-of-age story and its discussion of matters faced by young adults today, the book has been embraced by schools and libraries across the United States, but has also become the center of numerous challenges for subject matter many consider to be “age inappropriate” and what one school superintendent called “perversely vulgar.”
From Florida to Minnesota (as well as undisclosed other locations), CBLDF and other free speech advocates have had to defend the book’s inclusion in schools and libraries. As CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein asks, “Are you really upset about the content of This One Summer, and that fact that it talks about teen pregnancy and miscarriage? Or, are you worried about your kid at an age when these are legitimate issues?” adding:
If you as a parent don’t want a book in your home, that’s your right. That’s a matter of how you raise your children. But one individual doesn’t have a right to determine how a community raises its kids.
This One Summer is just one example that demonstrates the ongoing fight for everyone’s right to read. Whereas it is unfortunate that we still need to fight this fight, annual events like Banned Book Week allow us to continue a very necessary conversation about why free speech is important and how we can all do our part to preserve the integrity of our First Amendment rights.
Read the entirety of Duin’s article here. Check out the ways that you can get ready for Banned Book Week along with other resources put together by CBLDF to help defend books in your schools and libraries!
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!